Politics

July 21, 2013

Failed recruiting bill succeeding as political wedge issue

Legislation that would have mirrored federal rules on military recruiters' access to schools seems destined to be a factor in the state's 2014 elections.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

(Continued from page 2)

click image to enlarge

A Maine National Guard recruiter talks to a student at the "Thinking Outside the Box" college and career fair at Portland Arts and Technology High School in March 2013.

Courtesy photo

Lynn, the adjunct professor at the George Washington University School of Political Management, said both national parties have used military and veterans issues as a political wedge.

In 2007, Republicans in the U.S. Senate proposed a resolution to condemn a full-page ad by an anti-war group criticizing former Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq.

The resolution put Democrats in a difficult position, Lynn said, because some worried that opposing it would be viewed as anti-military. Other Democrats were worried about angering the liberal wing of their party.

In 2010, Democrats were accused of using the military to pass the DREAM Act, an immigration reform bill that allowed children of nonresident immigrants to obtain U.S. citizenship through military service. Some Republicans said the measure was designed to put immigration reform opponents in a corner, according to Lynn.

"No congressman wants to say he or she voted against a bill that would have allowed a young Latino to become a U.S. citizen after they fought to defend the country," Lynn said.

Sabato, with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said it's a "rare person that doesn't believe in supporting the military."

"It used to be that Republicans were more pro-defense," he said. "After 9/11 just about everybody became pro-defense. It's a great issue. It's Mom, apple pie, the Fourth of July."

The Maine Legislature this session took up nearly two dozen bills designed to help veterans, including measures to provide them property tax relief, preserve burial grounds on which veterans are buried, and provide free hunting and fishing licenses for disabled veterans.

PRESSURE ON CONGRESSMAN

Michaud, a six-term Democratic congressman who is raising money to campaign for governor in 2014, has built a reputation based on veterans advocacy.

"He's done a lot of things. I can't name them all, but he's been involved and he's for the military and he's done a lot for veterans," said Spaulding, the Vietnam veteran from South Berwick.

The day after more than 40 House Democrats voted against the recruiter bill, the Maine Republican Party called on Michaud to condemn the move.

"It's obvious politics to force Michaud to take a stand on that," Melcher said. "It makes sense for Republicans to either put him in a position where he looks less moderate or that he's bothering some people in his own party."

A sampling of letters written to newspapers about the flap suggests the outcome will be a campaign issue in legislative races, too.

Letters condemning the vote in the Bangor Daily News and the Morning Sentinel were written by Republican legislative candidates who lost to Democrats in 2012. Democrats highlighted in the letters voted against the recruiter bill, as did Sanford-area Reps. Anne-Marie Mastraccio and William Noon. On Thursday, former Republican Rep. Joan Nass co-authored a letter to the Portland Press Herald criticizing Noon's and Mastraccio's votes against the bill.

Nass termed out of the House in 2012, but she can run for the District 144 seat in 2014, the same seat currently held by Noon.

Will the issue resonate with veterans?

Political observers tend to agree that veterans are not a monolithic voting bloc, but they do unite on veterans issues.

"And, boy, do they vote!" said Sabato, adding that veterans are renowned for their high numbers of registered voters.

There are more than 135,100 veterans in Maine, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Lynn, with George Washington University, said veterans could take the recruiter bill "very personally," particularly Vietnam War veterans, who were subject to harsh treatment during opposition to the conflict.

"Those veterans remember being very unwelcome, of recruiters not being welcome in schools," Lynn said. "It touched a real raw nerve."

There are approximately 50,000 Vietnam veterans in Maine, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. Additionally, Lynn said, nonveterans from the Vietnam War era recall the protests and treatment of combat veterans.

"The rest of the population feels pretty guilty and ashamed about it," he said.

Melcher isn't certain that the recruiter issue will have the legs to become a 2014 issue.

Democrats, however, suspect it will.

Lizzy Reinholt, communications director for the Maine Democratic Party, said LePage and Republicans clearly tried to twist the situation and use it for political gain.

"This is an issue that's easy to back folks in a corner on and an easy one to try (to) make particular legislative candidates look bad on," Reinholt said.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

smistler@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @stevemistler

 

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